An expert guide to choosing and caring for your beloved knits
Almost all sweaters should be hand-washed and air-dried if you want them to last and last.— Wendy Bernard, author of the Custom Knits series of books and knitting blogger.
Jumpers. or sweaters, are something of an investment; even the budget-friendly ones can be costly. To that end, it can be tricky to know which sweaters are worth your money and which ones will end up misshapen and pilled after just a couple of washes. For that matter, how should you be washing your sweaters for longevity? Fortunately, genuine sweater experts -- knitters -- can answer all your sweater questions.
The sweater sections in many shops can be a minefield, with everything from cheaper acrylic, to expensive alpaca and cashmere. Knowing what to choose and when to invest in more expensive natural fibers can be a challenge.
Popular knitting blogger Glenna Harris believes in investing in mostly natural fibers. “I always advocate natural fibers whenever possible,” she says. “Read the labels and look for a high proportion of wool, cotton, alpaca or cashmere. These kinds of fibers should be the first ones listed on the label. If the label lists a lot of nylon and acrylic, chances are that sweater is going to feel hot, scratchy and uncomfortable the more you wear it.” Even if they look good in the store, synthetic blends won’t look and feel good for long, so you may want to save up and invest in a more expensive item that will last for years with proper care.
“If you're on a budget,” Harris says, “try your best to choose a smaller number of better-quality sweaters. Get one or two pieces that are well-made, feel comfortable and will last. Synthetic blends are tempting because they are cheaper. But try to get at least 75 percent natural fibers.”
Some inexpensive sweaters do contain luxury fibers -- enter the era of the inexpensive, mass-produced cashmere sweater. But Stephanie Steinhaus, owner of knitting studio Unwind, warns against trying to skimp on those luxurious natural fibers. Inexpensive cashmere comes from mass-herded goats that are often treated poorly, she says. “A poorly fed and cared for animal gives poor fiber. While an inexpensive cashmere sweater feels great at first, it will pill quickly and wear thin in the hard traffic areas. And the colours may not stay true very long.”
When looking at sweaters in clothes shops, it’s important to check carefully for signs of good workmanship. “Watch out for seams you can put your fingers through,” Steinhaus says. “Loose yarn ends flying around are another bad sign.”
Wendy Bernard, knitting blogger and author of the Custom Knits series of books, says that it’s not just baggy seams and loose threads you should watch out for. “Avoid heavy or bulky, loosely knit items,” she says. “They will most definitely lose their shape over time.”
Harris recommends road-testing your sweater when trying it on. “When you're trying on your sweater, give it a few tugs and pulls and see how it behaves,” she says. “Do the buttons seem loose? If there is a zipper, is it easy to move up and down or does it catch and snag? Have the seams been reinforced with more than one line of stitching? Or for that matter, are there any seams? If a garment has no or few seams, it is less likely to hold its structure.”
Another thing to be aware of is which materials have pilling issues. “The softer the yarn, the more likely it is to pill,” Steinhaus says. “Animal fibers and acrylic will pill eventually no matter what you do, but cotton, linen and bamboo don't pill.”
Harris agrees that animal-fiber sweaters, although luxurious, are more likely to pill. “Knits that pill quickly are often made from yarn that has not been spun very tightly or from very soft and less sturdy fibers,” Harris explains. “But this might have very little to do with the quality of the garment. For example, more expensive fibers like ultra-fine merino wool, silk and cashmere are very soft, and very comfortable, but also tend to pill. This is something that is harder to judge with commercial knits, because you are seeing them fresh off the rack. Usually, if it feels very soft in your hands, it will pill more quickly.”
Wash and wear
Some labels say a delicate machine wash or wool cycle is acceptable. But some sweaters react poorly to any sort of machine wash. “If it's made from an animal fiber such as wool, alpaca or cashmere, I tend to hand-wash and lay flat to dry,” Harris says. “Don't hang sweaters to dry if you can help it, as this tends to lead to droopy, misshapen shoulders. If in doubt, let it lay flat to dry on a drying rack or a few towels.”
However, if your sweater is made from cotton or other plant fibers, you may find machine-washing works fine. “Cotton and plant fibers often hold up a bit better to machine-washing,” explains Harris, “but they may shrink up in the dryer. If in doubt, wash on delicate cycle and lay flat to dry.”
Bernard also believes in careful hand-washing. “Almost all sweaters should be hand-washed and air-dried if you want them to last and last. Cleaning products like Eucalan and Soak -- neither need to be rinsed out of a sweater -- work great. All you need to do is put the sweater in a sink with cool water and a little bit of a cleaning agent and soak for a while. Then squeeze the water out and lay the sweater on a flat surface to dry.”
If you're concerned because the label on your sweater advises you to dry clean only, Harris says hand-washing is usually OK even in these circumstances. "Often the label is precautionary and assumes that the purchaser is more likely to dry clean than hand-wash," she says. "Hand-washing is always an option, but should always be done with cold water and with a cleaner intended for hand-washing."
If you do try to cut corners and machine-wash your sweater, be prepared to risk losing it. “You could end up with a felted mess even if you wash it on a delicate cycle,” Bernard said. “Acrylics will fare better in the washer and dryer. But no matter what the label says, if it's a favorite sweater, don't put it in the washer or dryer!”
For those sweaters that have been ruined in the washer or dryer or are simply extremely pilled, don’t despair. “Hand-held de-fuzzers work,” Steinhaus says, “but they’re not great. If you love the sweater, however, it is worth trying to de-fuzz it before dumping it.”
There are also recycling options. “If your sweater is wool and its wearability is over,” Steinhaus says, “purposely shrink it in the washer. It will turn into felt, which you can repurpose into table runners, hot pads or even stitch up into a cool scarf!”